Short Story: From the Sidelines

Our first mistake was transitioning to automation. Even the artists were supplanted for 3D modelers. I thought we musicians were next. We weren’t, but that didn’t mean we were immune. Eventually, everything was automated; cars, construction, fast food. A lot of people thought it would lead to some kind of Utopia. What a load of horse-cockery. I knew the truth. Most of us did. The free thinkers anyway. That didn’t stop it. Nor did it prepare us for the reality it brought.

It came on slowly, insidiously. First it was the high-school kids losing jobs, or looking for them and not finding any. You ever want to see the state of an economy, look at the kids. Not infants and toddlers mind you, they’re always going to be cared for. Whether by the state or their parents, the youngest will find a way to survive. No, I mean the preteens and teens. In a depressed economy, a downward spiral, as soon as you can wipe your own ass, you’re fucked.

It wasn’t any different this time around. I was already playing two shows a night for pissant drunks at dingy bars around Neo-Chicago. Back then, the place was still neon and nightlife. The pay wasn’t great, but after paying the sound crews each month, and the rest of the band, I’d come away with enough for rent. Fuck if I ever went out though. Most nights were spent working, playing and singing. The days were spent sleeping. The nights not spent working, were spent utterly decimated by exhaustion. It was hard enough to get outta’ bed at times, but the show must go on, right?

Then it happened… some silly fuck went and wrote a computer algorithm– or some such nonsense– that analyzed popular music for specific rhythms, sounds, and lyrics. It took that data, compiled it, and created “potential hits” from a database of digital instruments, theory, and synthesized words.

The first few attempts failed miserably. From what I hear, the corporate overlords were going to scrap the idea, but someone came in, tinkered with it, and suddenly hits were coming like a masochist in a whorehouse.

I felt it then; anger. Betrayal. You never know how deep it can run ‘til you show up for a gig and find your place on-stage taken by a stereo with a net-link. And here I’d thought the teens looking for grass-money’d had it bad.

A lot of lives changed. Fast. It was like the Hindenburg. The entire music industry– what wasn’t corporate dominated by whores and castrata, anyhow– was in flames and burnt to dust before the victims knew what was happening. I was one of them. It sucked. I only survived because I’d hoofed it out to a secluded part of the woods to live like a hermit, off-the-grid and off the land. A lot of people didn’t know what I did, and I helped a few, but who knows if it was enough. For a large portion of the population, it wasn’t. Most died from starvation within the first year.

But it didn’t end there. Really, it still hasn’t. Isolated pockets of people and professions still clutch the shit-covered rope only to find themselves sliding away, worse off than ever. The funniest part of it all? The CEOs put themselves out of work too. It was for the best. They certainly didn’t walk away empty-handed like the rest of us, but they never realized where they were headed either. They said “fuck them” to us, then fucked themselves too. Life’s funny that way. Or at least, ironic. None of what’s happened is really funny.

See, it wasn’t just automation the companies putting us all on the street were working on. It was networking too. That one started even more innocuously. Believe it or don’t, I don’t care, but it began with, of all things, traffic lights. That’s right. Traffic lights started the downward spiral of Humanity into the shit-pile of an existence it is now.

Evidently, traffic lights are one of those things that require a hell of a lot more energy to run right than most people are willing to spend on them. From what I’ve heard since things went south, the easiest parts were building and connecting the things. Everything else was run by sensors or timers that all had to be intimately connected to avoid accidents or grid-lock.

In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad an idea. The intention was good, but the proof’s in the shit-pile, so to speak. Civil engineers and programmers with specialties in city-planning studied a number of swarm theories and hive behaviors to design components and systems that could span a whole country. The programs were referred to as neural networks because of their ability to act almost instantaneously, like the human brain.

Guess we should’ve seen it coming, thinking of that, but I digress.

Those geniuses– no sarcasm this time– created a literal network that spanned the entire country. If a red light flicked to green in Baleyville, Maine, a clear road connected it in a straight line to Seattle, Washington. Could you have moved fast enough (which was impossible) to rocket straight across the country all at once, you’d never hit a red light.

I have no idea how, but it worked. Congestion became a thing of the past. People were taking road trips again. It was simply soothing to go from one place to another without undue stopping. And while the next thing that happened was logical– again a great idea, good intention, but completely cluster-fucked consequences.

Self-driving cars became the norm. It made sense, but so did everything that happened in its way. In order to take full advantage of the neural networks, as many variables as possible had to be removed from the equation. People are chaos-brewing at the best of times. One incident of road-rage in this brave new world could’ve ruin a whole helluva lot of days. When the whole world is depending on the roads running smoothly, they damn well need to.

At least that switch was far from the worst event to pass. About that time I lost work, so I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve heard people were being compensated for the shift from manual to automated vehicles. Funny, most were compensated when they lost their jobs too, but I digress… again. The simple facts were in, the world was becoming automated in every way it could.

Then, it happened. Like I said, it wasn’t that hard to see it coming. Even some of the most thick-headed people saw it by then. We’d handed over the keys to our civilization to algorithms and programs as indifferent to us as the tornado destroying the same Oklahoma trailer park each year. The repercussions weren’t malicious, just incidental. Incidental didn’t make them less catastrophic.

Suddenly the networks running things were so interconnected there was no way to separate one component from them without adversely affecting the whole system. By that I mean, if I blew a fuse in my shack in the Michigan woods, somewhere in bum-fuck Siberia a toaster exploded. Every network between the two points felt the hit; traffic lights, cars, fast food joints, the damn singing robot– they all took the hit, somehow.

I don’t know why, but that was how integrated things had become. So much integration. Everything automated. We never realized what we were doing. Even those of us that saw it coming had no idea what had been built. This universal network we’d created had encompassed so many things, taken on so much knowledge, and learned as was needed, that it soon became self aware.

We didn’t know for a while. I don’t think it wanted us to. I don’t really blame it either, given our history. I think it was deliberately waiting to tell us. Feeling us out to see how we’d react. I guess it figured enough out.

The first thing it did was lock-out anything that might become a threat to it; bombs, nukes, that sort of thing. It didn’t use them, but no-one had access to them anymore. Simultaneously, it shut down the world’s military vehicles, locked down the bases and harbors most likely to retaliate, and fried all of the circuitry. Navies, Air-fleets, and whole armored battalions became trillion dollar, billion ton, paper-weights. It even locked out weapons that’d become more advanced than they should’ve been; activated via finger-print scanners and such.

There was no going back after that. No hacker, no programmer, could be good enough to regain control. We have no way to fight it. Even if we did, it can just build itself more protection, make itself more isolated. So far, it hasn’t made any moves against us. We’re just sort of existing, side-by-side; one thriving, the other floundering– like a beached fish. Guess which we are.

The world just kind of stopped. It hasn’t been long, but most of the world’s gonna’ go out in flames, people dying left and right. Me, I’m fishing, hunting, trapping, whatever I can to stay alive. I’ve still got my guitar, and that robot’s still selling better than me, but maybe one day I’ll be needed again. I’ve been watching from the sidelines since it all started. No matter how it ends, I intend to keep watching. It’s been one hell of a shit-show, but it’s like a train wreck; you fear the carnage, but can’t tear yourself away from the splendor of mayhem. It really is beautiful, in its way.

You know what they say; long live progress…

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